Carnegie Mellon University

Beto O'Rourke

May 03, 2021

From Beto O'Rourke to Safra Catz: IPS faculty expose students to an array of virtual guests

By Bill Brink

Beto O’Rourke has been steeped in Texas politics since birth. His father was a county judge in El Paso and the state co-chairman for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign, and Beto served on El Paso’s City Council before representing the Texas 16th in the House. His mastery of state politics was clear on a recent Zoom call, when he discussed the latest efforts to restrict voting rights in a state that has done so effectively for decades.

“There’s no ability to register to vote online,” he concluded for emphasis, “in the year of our Lord 2021.”

The noteworthy aspect of O’Rourke’s remarks was his audience. The former Congressman joined a Carnegie Mellon University class called “Representation and Redistricting,” taught by Dr. Jonathan Cervas in the Institute for Politics and Strategy. The challenge that the COVID-19 pandemic imposed on higher education – the reduction of in-person gatherings and reliance on remote instruction – created an opportunity for IPS students, who gained access through the wonders of Zoom to guest speakers, the caliber and frequency of which would have been impossible in person.

Cervas’ class was taught across three universities: Princeton, University of California Irvine, and CMU, co-instructed by Dr. Sam Wang at Princeton and Dr. Bernard Grofman at UCI, with the virtual environment allowing the professors to co-host guests from all over the country. Students in Taube Professor of International Relations and Politics Kiron Skinner’s Policy Forum were treated to visits from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy Nadia Schadlow, Oracle CEO Safra Catz, Atlantic Council President and CEO Fred Kempe, Hudson Institute Fellow and Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead, and Ambassador Jim Jeffrey.

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Safra Catz

Jeffrey served as the US Ambassador to Albania, Turkey, and Iraq, with a stint as Deputy National Security Advisor mixed in. Until recently, he was the Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. He is now the Chair of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center – which is fitting, given the way he blended Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and modern European history into the context he provided for more recent conflicts in the Middle East. 

The Congress of Vienna in 1814, which reorganized Europe after the Napoleonic Wars, created a system that worked, Jeffrey said, for ninety-nine years. It stopped working in 1914 and, discredited, did not return after 1945.

“Out of that collapse … came the idea of a different order, a collective security order where nations basically gave up their ability to play Napoleon III expanding into Italy in 1859, or Bismarck expanding into France with Alsace-Lorraine in 1871, and essentially adhering to a system that didn’t generate international mayhem in a time of nuclear weapons,” he said.

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Jim Jeffrey 

Catz, who has served as CEO of Oracle since 2014 and according to Forbes is worth $1.7 billion, discussed the challenge of determining who decides whether to allow or restrict hate speech online, Oracle’s work on national security, and the threat China poses in the digital world. She also offered students advice that she found beneficial in her career.

“Don’t do what everybody else is doing because it’s acceptable,” she said. “Make sure you know the difference between right and wrong in your heart and in your head, and follow it, and then be willing to substantiate it and fight it.”

Students had access to current military and government officials in their classes. Commander Clint Christofk, the IPS Navy Federal Executive Fellow, arranged for Dr. James Holmes, a professor at the US Naval War College, to join Dr. Molly Dunigan’s International Security Graduate Seminar. Students in Dr. Alma Keshavarz’s Terrorism and Insurgency course heard from Shawanesh Underwood, a Member in the Secretary of State’s Office of Policy Planning, who discussed the role of NATO on counterterrorism issues, and Yaya Fanusie, a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security who spent seven years as an economic and counterterrorism expert at the CIA.

Fanusie discussed the ways terrorist organizations used cryptocurrency to fund their activities. Cryptocurrency was not yet mainstream in 2016, but terrorists began fundraising with it, publishing posters with QR codes that linked the bitcoin address. That meant researchers and law enforcement could follow the blockchain transaction, a public online ledger, and identify the accounts.

“This is not what we had seen in counterterrorist financing,” Fanusie said. “Usually, you would not be able to see what they were raising. A lightbulb went off.”

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Local guests joined as well. Dr. Ignacio Arana invited Sister Janice Vanderneck, the Founding Director of Casa San Jose, a resource center for Latino immigrants in Pittsburgh. After Arana led a discussion of political mobilization in his Comparative Politics class, Vanderneck talked to the students about Casa San Jose’s protest activity.

“Our country has been basically accepting these laborers when they are needed, and then deporting them when something arises which stirs up public sentiment against them,” she said.

The exposure to, and interaction with, these guests, even in a virtual fashion, helped IPS students not only sharpen ability to think systematically about politics, one of the department’s pillars, but to learn how to engage their instruction to solve real-world problems. In that area, O’Rourke left them on a realistic, but hopeful, note. 

“For those who love democracy, it’s a very trying time, to say the least,” he said. “But for those who love democracy, there is no better time to be in the fight than this one.”